The economy may be tanking, but a drive around downtown Washington on Friday makes one thing perfectly clear: Barack Obama's inauguration has been a bonanza for the chain link fence and portable toilet industries.
Vast portions of the Mall are now enclosed by ominous-looking fencing. With the inauguration four days away, the swath of green known as the Nation's Backyard, flanked by the stately National Gallery of Art and other Smithsonian museums, looks like a refugee camp in waiting. Or a giant feed lot, minus the cattle.
Into these various pens, after security screening, hundreds of thousands of spectators, including this reporter and his spouse, are expected to file on Tuesday morning. There we'll stand for hours, in probable near-freezing temperatures, craning for a view of the distant Capitol where important events will apparently be occurring. Any actual look we get of the swearing-in ceremony itself, and Obama's speech, will come via one of many jumbotron television screens placed up and down the Mall.
The Capitol, too, is fenced off. Over eight years, some $620 million of your tax dollars were spent on excavating and constructing a massive underground visitors center, an elaborate warren of marble-clad floors and bronze doors that any pharaoh would be happy to be caught dead in. Having recently completed this megabuck beautification project, police have now surrounded the Capitol with tawdry wire fencing that could have been recycled from any number of strip mall building projects.
Then there's the toilet situation. Near the hallowed National Archives, home of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, stands a long row of dark blue portable johns, enough to service a small town. That's just one of countless rest oases, scattered between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route. Contractors scoured the East Coast to assemble an estimated 7,000 portable toilets. Interstate trucks are dropping them in suburban Maryland at FedEx Field, home of the Redskins. From there, smaller batches are brought to the Mall and deposited at strategic points. What our shrines of democracy must endure for a one-day event.
Should you keep track of such things, the inauguration will easily eclipse the number of porta potties assembled for any event in the United States. It is not, however, a world record. The Washington Post says that occurred in Germany, where 8,000 johns were placed for a papal visit.